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Chosenness as a Jewish concept

September 16, 2010 – 8:00 am71 Comments

The concept of chosenness in Judaism is not necessarily the same as the concept of chosenness in The Matrix

By Geoffrey Bloch

Johnny Baker, my friend and childhood classmate, endorses changing the traditional blessing one makes when being called up to the Torah (Changing Our Chosen Status AJN 3/9). I sat next to Johnny in Shul recently, listening to Amichai Lau-Lavie as the turgeman (interpreter) during the Torah reading. After each pasuk (biblical sentence) we were treated to an English interpretation which was reasonably faithful to the text while adding some “colour and movement”. I enjoyed the novelty of the experience and discussed the ancient tradition of the turgeman with Johnny.

I was not as attentive as Johnny, because I did not hear Lau-Lavie change the blessing of chosenness from “mikol” to “im kol” which, as Johnny correctly observed, brings about a sea change in the meaning of the blessing from recollecting God as having chosen us from all other nations to receive the Torah to His having chosen us with or alongside all other nations.

While Johnny has waxed lyrical about how wonderful and profound such a “small twist of a single letter” was, I consider Lau-Lavie’s innovation to be highly objectionable for the following three reasons (in reverse order of importance).

First, it is completely meaningless. If all nations have been chosen, then none has been chosen. The whole concept of choice, by definition, means selecting one from many. Changing the blessing is therefore absurd. In any event, it is historically unarguable that God chose the Jews to receive the Torah.

Secondly, there is breathtaking hubris and arrogance in making an alien blessing (which reflects a non-orthodox and revisionist theology) in a supposedly orthodox shul. All Jews are welcome to pray in orthodox synagogues and to retain their nusach (religious style or standard) in private prayer. But once someone is publicly honoured by being called up to the Torah, the nusach of the shul must be honoured when publicly proclaiming the blessing which must be heard by the minyan. I wonder whether Lau-Lavie first checked with the gabbaim (shul officials) as to whether the shul might object to his idiosyncratic version of the blessing. I suspect not.

Thirdly, by ascribing chosenness to all peoples in his blessing, Lau-Lavie implies that the traditional concept of Jewish chosenness is insensitive, chauvinistic and offensive to other faiths and therefore should be discarded. Johnny shares this erroneous sentiment by arguing that “the notion of chosenness” should move “from a perspective of superiority to one of equality”. This misconceives our unique, divine role in this world as Ohr Lagoyim (a light unto the nations) which has nothing whatever to do with superiority, dominance or advantage. Our eternal mission, so profoundly described by Isaiah in 42:6, 49:6 and 60:3, is to share God based ethics with our fellow man and to do so by example, not by coercion.

Perhaps one reason why God chose the Holy Land for us to undertake this task was because it was the land bridge in the ancient world between the 3 continents, through which everyone had to pass and be exposed to our example. It was therefore the obvious place where our influence in the world could be maximised and where we could best fulfill our mission. And we have succeeded, at least to a significant degree, as most civilised societies are founded on timeless values which the Torah revealed. Has anything really changed over the millennia? The eyes of the world still miraculously focus on our tiny sliver of land.

I wholeheartedly agree with Johnny’s inspirational conclusion that “the approach of the Yamim Noraim is a perfect time to acknowledge the elements that bind humanity”. Let us also remember that it has largely been our chosenness, the role our people has played over the ages, which has given humanity to mankind.

Geoffrey Bloch is a Melbourne based barrister.

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